Culture Clash at the Oakland Museum of California

Culture Clash rocked it last night at the Oakland Museum. True theater artists, they didn’t let the fact that only two of the three troupe members were present (Richard Montoya wasn’t able to make the show) or that their new book, Oh, Wild West!: Three New Plays, wasn’t ready for sale keep them from delivering a great show for the standing-room-only James Moore Theater.

Giving us a sample of previous work, Culture Clash explored what it is to be an American living in Miami (Radio Mambo), San Diego (Bordertown) and Washington D.C. (Anthems). Each story coming from a new perspective of what the “ideal” America is and then that perspective shifting within the stories. Noe, a Salvadorian immigrant living in D.C., wonders what happened to the America from Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley and why he’s living in the America of Good Times and The Jeffersons. wonders why he didn’t learn more English back home and why his (presumably American born) son is speaking in a whole different language (“Chill out, playah, I’m hangin in da crib.”) that is nothing like the English Noe sees on TV. We all know Noe, the put down immigrant who wants America to return to the status-quo of his imagination, refusing social change because he can’t find a place for himself and his family in that re-imagined America, this is why social reform in the community is an up-hill battle and Culture Clash gets to the heart of it in a three minute comedy skit. It’s only comedy cuz it’s true.

From those early stories, Culture Clash moved toward newer work that breaks from the modular structure and interview reliant personas to more fictional plays that take a deeper look into history. Tackling the birth of Dodger Stadium and displacement of local residents in Chavez Ravine and deconstructing the world’s most famous fictional Mexican, Zorro, with Zorro in Hell. They closed out with a cover of the classic Abbot and Costello routine, Who’s on First, a spot-on homage (Ric Salinas even working in Lou’s ticks and Herb Siguenza rigid as a flagpole as the straight man Bud) that seamlessly became ¿Quien es en Primer Base?

The Q&A afterwards gravitated towards Culture Clash being completely open to sharing their work with new theater companies and hoping new dramatists expand on their previous work by updating it with new language, current political situations and new urgency. (“We don’t consider our writing sacred.” “We think theater should be of the now”) Their was also curiosity about all Spanish work that could reach audiences in Mexico and beyond but Culture Clash doesn’t buy into the homogenization of Spanish speakers and prefers to focus on the Latino who grew up with Spanish but is more of a mixed language citizen. (“Our target audiences isn’t pure Spanish speakers.” “Univision and TeleMundo is so foreign to us.”) The temptation to have a broad Spanish distributor would also take away from Culture Clash’s commitment to be pioneers, to bring the stereotypes of Latinos and explore them through satire in the communities where those stereotypes are born, places that talk smack about Latinos cuz they’ve never really met Latinos. Much less a Latino theater troupe that is ready to bring all those misconceptions out into the center stage. (“We get it out of the universities and bring it to the lily-white theaters because that’s the people who need to hear it.”)